Belgium weathered a Canadian storm in a thrilling Group F encounter, recording a 1-0 win, courtesy of Michy Batshuayi’s 44th-minute goal.
The European side, ranked the second best in the worldstruggled to match Canada’s intensity at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on Wednesday night but will be thankful to have avoided a major shock by escaping with a win.
Canada will bemoan a litany of missed opportunities, including star player Alphonso Davies’ failure to convert a penalty after just 11 minutes.
Thibaut Courtois’ save prevented the 22-year-old from scoring what would have been Canada’s first ever World Cup goal. In their only other World Cup appearance in Mexico in 1986, Canada lost all three games and failed to hit the back of the net once.
Undaunted by the early setback, the Canadian attack kept pushing for the first 45 minutes, their speed wreaking havoc on the Belgian defense and keeping Courtois busy.
But against the odds, Belgium took the lead as Batshuayi broke between two defenders, ran to a long ball and shot past goalkeeper Milan Borjan just before half-time.
Batshuayi only played due to the injury of first-choice striker Romelu Lukaku, which could see him miss the entire group stage.
Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ is struggling to keep up
The second half was evenly matched with chances to score at both ends.
But overall, Canada had 21 shots on target compared to the nine recorded by Belgium, whose established, star-studded team was far from convincing.
There were six players in their thirties in the starting line-up, four of them with more than 100 international appearances.
Courtois and key midfielder Kevin De Bruyne could also reach triple digits at this World Cup in what looks increasingly like the last hurray for this group, often described as a “golden generation” of Belgian footballers.
Coach Roberto Martinez admitted after the match that his side had been second best overall, but praised the victory as an important foundation on which Belgium could build its tournament campaign.
Indeed, the best moves came from a mobile and attacking Canadian team in front of their boisterous, maple-leaf-waving fans. In the first half alone, they scored 14 times – the most in 16 years by a team at the World Cup that failed to score.
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Davies stood out for his quick runs from left back as captain Atiba Hutchinson, aged 39, became the oldest outfield player to start a World Cup match.
But failing to convert the many chances they created left them stranded in Group F, with Morocco and Croatia having one point each, and Belgium in first place.
Canada’s next appearance will see them face Croatia on Sunday, and Belgium will face Morocco on the same day. A win for the Martinez forwards would guarantee their passage to the knockout stage.